By Raymond Travers
It seems sadness has crept into the thoughts of everyone around. It is as if a good friend has lost something very dear. Duke, the elephant with the largest set of ivory on any elephant presently living in the Kruger National Park (KNP) has broken his left tusk.
But, like many tragedies, an amazing story of good fortune, effective use of technology, enthusiasm from the Sanparks Website Forum members and good co-operation has surfaced with the recovery of the piece of ivory that used to grace Duke. To make this even more incredible is that it is the first time on record that a broken piece of ivory has been recovered that can be positively linked to one of the KNP’s legendary tuskers.
With reasonably accurate information, Crocodile Bridge section ranger Neels van Wyk searched on foot the supposed area where the tusk was last seen without success on Tuesday August 21, 2007. On deciding that it was a bit like searching for a needle in a haystack, Van Wyk decided to recruit the help of Kruger’s air patrol Bantam ultralight aircraft and its pilot, Tshokwane section ranger Steven Whitfield.
Unfortunately, the aircraft was scheduled to fly in the Phalaborwa region on Wednesday August 22, 2007 and thus was only available on the morning of Thursday August 23, 2007. Supplied with information from Sanparks Website Forum members Dirk Human, Jonathan Heger and Matthew Harding, which included vital GPS co-ordinates, Whitfield and Van Wyk took off with trepidation because it was still very difficult to find something like a piece of ivory.
“We flew along the Mbyandzwu-spruit and made one turn and Neels saw the ivory lying under a leadwood bush,” said an excited Steven, “we marked the spot and flew back to Crocodile Bridge and our vehicles immediately.” A 600-metre walk from the S28 to the scene enabled the rangers, a delegation from the Honorary Rangers and an excited Jonathan straight to the bush and the ivory.
After the obligatory photograph session, the ivory has been returned to Crocodile Bridge ranger post for the KNP’s Cites (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) approved process which has to be followed strictly whenever ivory is found in the bush. The story of the breaking of Duke’s tusk has spread like wildfire among Duke aficionados both within Sanparks and outside the organisation.
Those that have studied elephants say: "I suppose we half expected it," or "well he is nearing the end of his life so his tusks are probably quite brittle." But we really don't want to face the possibility that Duke might be coming to the end of his time with us. "It has happened in the past that trail elephants with large tusks have broken parts off their tusks just a few months before we have discovered their carcasses.
I truly hope this is not the signal for this great elephant's demise," said Johan Marais, the author of the coffee table book The Great Tuskers of Africa. Not only is Duke the Kruger tusker that has been spotted most often by tourists and Sanparks officials alike, he is also the tusker that has been photographed the most of all. The Sanparks Forum members' role in not only the discovery that Duke had indeed lost a tusk but also the eventual recovery of the ivory should also be noted.
The three friends- part of the original Duke Quest - were enjoying a return visit to the Lower Sabie area and a chance decision saw two of them, Dirk and Matthew, turning onto the S28 on Monday August 20, 2007. As fortune would have it, the two dapper Duke Quest veterans spotted Duke a few minutes later and enjoyed at least a 30-minute sighting of the tusker.
They then managed to get hold of Jonathan - who had just arrived in Lower Sabie after the long journey south from where he had been staying at Balule - and after unhooking his caravan, he made his way to the sighting as quickly as possible, enabling him to see Duke. The three then returned to Lower Sabie at around 16h00 to pitch their tents and set up their camp and, after this was done, they drove out to the site again to spend one last moment with the legendary Duke.
They found Duke in exactly the same position at around 17h30 but, after carefully scanning the graceful old bull, they discovered that something was desperately wrong. There was a tusk missing. Like true Kruger enthusiasts, these three Duke Quest members ensured that they had plenty of photographic evidence and the photographs taken by Jonathan at around 16h00 and 17h30 are probably the last photograph of Duke with his full ivory and the first photograph with him showing a broken tusk.
Although this is a great moment for the forum, particularly the Duke Quest members, it is also a sad moment because the great tusker Duke will no longer be the same again.
But Duke is still very much alive and, at the time of writing, he has been seen - sans-most of his left tusk – snooping around the Ntandanyathi Hide (between Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge rest camps) with his askari bulls in tow behaving like his good old self.
Duke is reported to have a “very relaxed disposition” and there is only one incident known when he did lose his cool with a human. It seems he has an intense dislike for motorbikes and once gave patrolling Crocodile Bridge section ranger Neels van Wyk this message with a charge and a horizontal tail (“elephantese” for “I’m-cross-with-you”).
But, the writer has personally seen Duke harmlessly ambling past Dr Ian Whyte and a film crew with only a rather mischievous sideways glance. There are plenty of other similar stories from Sanparks officials and visitors of how they saw Duke calmly munching away, not bothered about anything, including the antics of these “crazy humanoids in their smelly boxes”.